I didn’t expect the grief. I took the initial blow in stride. A loss, sure, but one that wasn’t entirely unexpected. It was actually a sigh of relief, like breaking up with a significant other whom you know is not right for you. And the anger, well, that was a given.
But the grief, it hit in waves when I least expected it, like when a friend took a great new job. Or when I received my first unemployment check. I was in mourning; not over a traditional relationship, but over the loss of my job.
Experts believe feelings of grief after a job loss are completely valid, for a variety of reasons. For many of us, losing a job doesn’t only represent a loss of income, but also a core part of our identities.
In a 1998 study, Richard H. Price, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, examined just how profound an effect the loss of a job can have on one’s mental health.
“Some people have jobs, some people have careers, and some people have callings,” he says. “When they lose that, they lose a lot.”
Unsurprisingly, that feeling may be magnified for those who invest a lot in their jobs, whether that be through time, education, or energy.
In short, we tend to invest so much in our work that it can shape our identities in ways we may not even realize. And the simple act of losing your routine—morning coffee before heading to work, chatting with coworkers, working lunches, and even meetings—can create a void.
“Most people don’t realize how important routine can be in our lives,” says Tina B. Tessina, Ph.D., psychotherapist and author of “How to be Happy Partners: Working it out Together”. “The enormity of this loss can be a total surprise, and therefore even more upsetting.”
As a media professional, I’ve often considered this as the industry is regularly in flux. As in many other industries, a traditional work day may not describe the 9-to-5 of generations past. A typical day may involve waking up to scroll social media and scan emails that could affect the upcoming work day. Add to that the fact that more employees are nearly always accessible—using laptops to work anywhere, emailing anytime from smartphones—and it’s no wonder that a sense of loss can be so profound.
The effects can be even worse for those who are already predisposed to feelings of depression and anxiety, Price says. In addition to the loss of the job, feelings of rejection and hopelessness can creep in as job seekers look for additional employment. The loss of income can mean the potential loss of a house, car, insurance, and other expenses. Even in a home where a spouse or partner provides income, families may be living on less, which may also cause discord. These types of stress can begin to feel overwhelming. “If it’s too strong, anxiety and depression can paralyze you,” Price says.
Another source of anxiety is what Price and his colleagues call the double burden of unemployment. “In job search, it is not only finding a job and applying, it is also dealing with what may in many cases be multiple rejections before you have even the possibility of a new job,” he says.
For many, looking for work can span over six or more months; it’s important to acknowledge that there may also be many rejections before landing a new job. It can be beneficial to practice resilience to avoid feelings of depression or a cycle of anxiety that could make it even more difficult to find a new job.
With a concrete plan and a few coping techniques, you can take care of your mental health even after a devastating job loss. Here’s how:
“Losing a job, especially involuntarily, is a big loss that needs to be grieved,” Tessina says. It’s perfectly normal to grieve, but the longer you wait to begin to make a plan, the more difficult it may be to get back into the workforce.
It’s OK to use this as a chance to take a vacation, but treat it as such. Schedule “vacation” time just as you would with an employer, and once your vacation is over return to a routine. A routine could include making a morning beverage, taking a scheduled lunch break, and perhaps leaving the house to job search during normal work hours. “You have a job already. Your job is searching for a job, and you need to start planning on how to get a job,” says Price.
Are you keen to learn a new skill, language, or go back to school? What about starting your own business or changing career fields? If finances allow, this may be a good time to focus energy on developing passions.
Price found that many people have done a job for so long that they can’t easily list their marketable skills. Create a list of each of your skills, from the ability to analyze difficult situations to being a people person, and consider how you can incorporate them into your next job.
During the job hunt, it can be easy to feel personally rejected by unanswered job applications and interviews that leave you without an offer. Instead, try to reframe it as an opportunity for another outcome. As Tessina says, “Remember that you are searching for a situation that’s good for you, not just a job.”
Positive encouragement and patience can be critical for someone who has lost a job. A person who is still grieving may seem lazy or disinterested, but loved ones should remember that may also be a sign of depression. Having a conversation about shifting household tasks and family roles may also be helpful.
For those with a history of depression, you may need additional support. If you find that you’ve become apathetic or hopeless, reach out to a counselor or primary care physician.
Artwork by KAREN HONG